India’s performance at the 15th Special Olympics World Summer Games 2019 in Abu Dhabi, UAE, was nothing short of an extraordinary feat.
In their ninth appearance at the biennial event, Indian athletes returned with 368 medals and some truly inspirational stories. The tally included 85 gold—of which 20 were clinched by powerlifters—154 silver, and 129 bronze medals, at the event which was held from March 14 to 21.
The 292 Indian contestants also performed exceptionally in athletics, aquatics, badminton, cycling, judo, powerlifting, and table tennis, basketball traditional, handball traditional and football 7-side female, enabling the contingent to finish with such an impressive tally.
Powerlifters alone brought home 96 medals (33 silver and 43 bronze), while India earned 49 medals in roller skating (13 gold, 12 silver and 16 bronze).
Cyclists, field and track athletes added considerably to the total haul as well, accounting for 84 medals. It was also the first time India participated in Judo and Futsal – clinching 3 gold, 1 silver and 7 silver medals respectively.
Assamese cyclist Abhishek Gogoi‘s performance on the track was exceptional; the 19-year-old who suffered injuries in his first-ever Special Olympics race did not let it bog him down.
Gogoi, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy since infancy, returned to compete and bagged a silver medal at the 10K Road Race, where India swept all podium places. His teammates Mani Singh and Khalid Bellary brought home the gold and bronze medals respectively.
Athletes from all 7 continents joined together to symbolically light the Special Olympics #FlameOfHope, signalling the beginning of seven days of sport, human endeavour & unity. #MeetTheDetermined pic.twitter.com/XlsNZGxtQ6— Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 (@WorldGamesAD) March 15, 2019
Another 19-year-old champion who beat all odds to bag a gold medal, was Jitender Pawal who secured a podium finish in the 200m race. Fighting poverty and multiple challenges, Pawal reportedly began his training just a month ago.
After winning the gold, in an interview with the Special Olympics correspondents, Jitender’s coach Harish said, “Despite his struggles, Jitendra never gave up his hope of participating in the World Games and eventually ended up winning the gold.” Harish was full of praise for all participating athletes who have shown incredible skill and dedication at the World Games.
Gogoi’s father died when he was 11; his mother has been raising and supporting him since then. Gogoi has trained himself on borrowed cycles and equipment until a crowdfunding campaign was able to raise money for other necessary resources.
About the tournament
The idea behind Special Olympics is to provide a platform to men and women with intellectual disabilities, just as Paralympics seeks to represent sportspersons with physical disabilities. Such tournaments reportedly offer these athletes a stigma-free inclusive space, which underscores the widespread discrimination and exclusionary treatment meted out to Indians with such disabilities.
These tournaments also offer attractive cash prizes, so it isn’t surprising that the parents or guardians, who often struggle to make ends meet and know that the conventional job sector doesn’t hold the answers, push their children to participate in such events.
A total of 75,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from over 192 nations participated in the Abu Dhabi chapter of Special Olympics, making it one of the largest and most inclusive humanitarian events in the world.
A hope for a brighter future for People Of Determination across the globe starts with unity and inclusion. We thank our sponsors who have joined us to make @worldgamesAD the most unified games ever held in the 50-year history of @specialolympics. #AbuDhabi2019 pic.twitter.com/ii0aP1lRV3— Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 (@WorldGamesAD) March 15, 2019
The Games opened a day after the horrific New Zealand mosque shooting; athletes and others from the Special Olympics honored the victims throughout the weekend, holding a moment of silence before every event on Saturday, including a New Zealand men’s basketball game against Australia.
Besides the Irish, British and American teams, the remarkable performance of 125 Syrian athletes, 50% of whom were women, struck the high note for the event for their incredible will to surmount wars, visa bans and other forces. Special athletes from Israel and Yemen competed alongside them, united in a common battle against stereotype, ableism and exclusion.
“Because of war in Yemen and the displacement of many businessmen, the chance of getting a sponsor was difficult. I had to buy from my own pocket enough clothes for the athletes, rent a small school-field for training, which is quite different to the stadiums here, and arrange transportation,” Al Hamadani, who is the President of the Yemeni Basketball Association, explained to Khaleej Times. Yemen’s participation in the Games comes after 10 years; they managed to send only 4 athletes this time.
Allowed to participate for the first time, Saudi Women’s basketball team won gold in their maiden appearance in the tournament. Female athletes from Saudi Arabia also competed across various sports and Bocce, track, field and bowling. In a Bocce event, a Saudi Women’s team comprising 5 athletes with Down Syndrome, won the silver medal.
The Special Olympics, the biggest international sports and humanitarian event, saw participation from a record number (40%) of female athletes. The Local Organising Committee played a key role in encouraging not only the participation of female athletes but also of coaches, volunteers and addition staff; they introduced more sports for women and increased the quota as well. The diversity and strength in participation now serve as a benchmark for the most unified Games in the 50-year history of the Special Olympics movement.
Why this matters
The WHO notes that India’s 31 million individuals with intellectual disabilities are the most overlooked among all its vulnerable groups. There is a large gap in mass awareness and proper understanding of the challenges that a life of intellectual disability holds; it certainly does not help with the Prime Minister making dyslexics the butt of his political jokes.
Narendra Modi on Thursday, however, was all smiles and praise for the champions, congratulating the contingent for their highly successful campaign at the prestigious event.
As conscious individuals, we are perhaps better equipped to acknowledge that intellectual disabilities can be overcome with an iron will, patience and perseverance; at times people diagnosed with them even live more fulfilling lives. (Picasso, da Vinci, Einstein and Spielberg were dyslexics.)
But when it comes to sports, we are more sceptical to admit that significant impairment in cognitive and adaptive behaviour can grasp the nuances of the game, let alone generate quality sports.
Indian badminton coach Dhiraj Sawant, who has worked closely with the Indian contingent for the last four years, believed that there are many incredible things to learn from people with intellectual disabilities. “Sign language is an art and I’m grateful to have met these athletes. You just have to be patient and understanding towards them and it’ll be a life-changing experience for you,” says Sawant in an interview with FirstPost.
But Special Olympics is not about the viewer. It is a reality check for those who doubt their capabilities; it’s about showcasing their talents on an international platform and it is about changing lives.
What comes after representation?
While tournaments like this help in debunking our perceptions about intellectual disability, the social mores which propagate ableism in sports are buried deep in our DNA — right from buying into such misinformation based on rigid social structures, religious beliefs and cultural norms, to our viewing preferences that are inclined towards IPL, Wimbledon or FIFA World Cup.
“To change the attitudes, there’s a lot to be done. In India, only people like us can bring the change,” says Victor Vaz, national sports director of Special Olympics Bharat, which has training centres across the nation. “The media can make or break it. If you reach to the grassroots level and make people understand, the perception automatically changes.”
“The Games have had a huge impact on everyone’s lives in the past and we foresee equal opportunities as a game-changer,” Vaz says, acknowledging that the real problem lies elsewhere. “Now, we are trying to make an MoU with federations, because we want our children to be included. We get support from some federations at the lower level but the national federations don’t help us. It’s all about finances,” Vaz said.
Without understanding, viewership and sponsorship, our athletes in Special Olympics will never be a part of the national conversation or mainstream sports. Improved representation is the first step — one can hope it will eventually lead to India’s intellectually disabled getting the credit they deserve, and enable the rest of the population to shed their detrimental notions.
As Pawal’s coach Harish said, “One should not overlook or back away from people of determination, instead everyone should encourage these people so they can be a very important part of the society and be able to contribute towards the betterment of the country.”
So even as the Abu Dhabi Games wraps, the fight for inclusion continues.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.